Carretera Austral

The Carretera Austral (CA) in Northern Patagonia on the Chilean side is known in the America’s cycling circuit as one of the top dirt rides. The CA is over 1,200 km’s with most of it being ripio (gravel/washboard) that starts in Puerto Montt and ‘dead ends’ at the town of Villa O’Higgins. We skipped ahead from La Paz, Bolivia missing the famed salars (salt flats) and lagunas route (left for another time) due to the rainy season as we would have hit them completely flooded, and from other cyclists accounts the route was ‘do-able’ but not fun and decided to jump down to Patagonia to take advantage of the short favorable season further south.


The CA traverses the sparsely populated northern Patagonia which is home to amazing vistas, fabulous parks, glaciers, mountains, rivers, with very little development with promises of “you can drink the water out of the streams and camp anywhere”.


It is truly one of the last frontiers.


The CA was even featured recently in the BBC’s travel section as a place to visit before it’s lost. As with all great frontiers, industry is ever encroaching and where there are resources, such a water (as the case in Patagonia) in turn, is the proposal from industry to encapsulate and monetize. One of the big pressures in this area is for the development of hydrodams on one of Chile’s largest rivers, the Baker, to fuel the city of Santiago and Chile’s booming mining industry in the north. In addition to the proposed dams one of the world’s largest transmission lines (1,200 kms) is also being proposed to transport the energy further north, a feat that is said to be equivalent to the distance between Maine and Florida. More information can be found here.


With high expectations, this route for us was a must do, but in honesty in our minds was a little over-hyped.


Yes the views are amazing, there are ample places to wild camp in peace and water is abundant and safe to drink (this is the first country since the USA where we’ve been able to safely drink the water) but this famed dirt route is also seeing more and more sections being converted from ripio (gravel) to pavement with ever present road works and many fences along the road, a sign that this area is no longer was wild as it once was is a true sign that this area won’t remain as pristine for long.


In the end …


Would I do it again? Probably not.


Am I glad I did it? Yes.


Would I recommend it? Depends …


There are many other fantastic dirt rides to get you off the beaten track but if you have only a few weeks and your keen on cycling it’s fairly easy logistically and there is a defined beginning and end point, takes about 3-4 weeks with a lot of options and the scenery is ever changing and stunning. But with that in mind, the road is rough and hard on equipment, it’s best to be light and have well tested gear; my rack broke a second time since Nicaragua due to the ripio but didn’t leave us stranded; but we met many other cyclists with an endless combination of bike configurations just doing it!


That said I’ll let the pictures tell the rest …


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The beginning of the Carretera Austral where we met our French tandem team, Adeline and Marc (Le Tandem et La Vie) who we affectionately refer to as the Frenchies who we managed to bump into on an off our entire time throughout the CA.


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You know you are on a popular cyclist route by the window decorations.



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Ok, so the views are pretty great as we ventured off the paved route out of Puerto Montt to hit some dirt.





And the signs are pretty entertaining.




Great to be by the sea again, first time in South America for us since Colombia.




The CA, if coming from Puerto Montt has a series of ferry crossings to keep you on the coastal route, the weather was cold and rainy but the inside of the cabin was treated to an impromptu accordion playing and a giant singalong broke out. If only you could hear the music.


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We met our friend Nick, 18, from Mexico City out touring South America for a year at Río Gonzalos and rode together for the next few days where we explored El Volcan near the town of Chaitén that wiped out the city when it erupted in 2008.


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The views on the way up the volcano stretched from the mountains to the sea.


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These jewels of beetles, I still need to find out their names, we saw on the leaves of the nalces plants. They have giant, prickly leaves similar to the North American Devil’s club.


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Riding with Nick we manage to get some photos of Mike and I together.


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We take every chance to get off the main road and onto the back roads.




We explored the Capilla de Marmol (marble caves) near Puerto Río Tranquilo via kayak (a far better way to experience these caves than the motor boat option if you have the time and good weather) with Phil and Hat, who we met on route on a short tour of the Carretera Austral.




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One of the many great wild camp spots that offered great sunsets and star gazing near the settling rush of the nearby river.


Mike and I  detoured off the CA bound towards the Chacabuco Valley where the new Patagonia National Park is being developed. Once we turned off the main road the local guanacos greeted us; the first of many sightings of this Camelid species.


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Our cook shelter had ample space for us to catch up on laundry and make minor repairs to our gear that had been piling up as we opted for a rest day in the park.




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What would a rest day be without good food and a little desert (apples cooked in butter, sugar and cinnamon sprinkled with shortbread like cookies – my camp stove version of a lazy apple crumble).


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Where we pitched our tent was an active grazing area for the resident guanacos where they greeted us every morning and hung out till late day where we could observe their habits while they ate, bathed in dust, played and just lay about.


The park is still under development but there are a few established trails, Mike and I set out for the 20 km “Lagunas altas” (high lakes) hike that takes you through an ever changing, diverse landscape and to some remote jewels of lakes in the back country.


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While hiking we catch glimpses of condors soaring where three rescued fledglings were recently released as part of the parks’ conservation efforts (more here).








One of the great things about cycle touring is never knowing where you are going to end up for the night… too late to catch the last ferry to Río Bravo we arrive to find this convenient shelter where we pitched our tent for the night out of the elements with a sea scape view where we shared the evening with two traveling sisters from the States.




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Homage to the shelter from cyclists before where we find a note from Marie and Johann who we had met on the west coast of the States in 2011 who had stayed in this very shelter the year before.




The last section of the CA from Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins was one of our favorite stretches, less people, less traffic, more wild. The weather during our whole month of the CA was outstanding with the only exception being two days of rain near Chaiten.


Less than 1 km north of Villa O’Higgins, the last town on the CA, we came upon Tsonek Eco-Camp. It looks  fancy from the road but once you venture up the hill you are greeted by Mauro, the energy behind this marvelous place that provides a great escape to pitch your tent (with a significant discount for cyclists) and provides an amazing atmosphere that attracts kindred spirits, promotes great communal meals utilizing the wood fired stove in an environmentally conscious manner. There are composting dry toilets, the camp is run on solar energy and all garbage is recycled and what can not be recycled is reused and or placed in eco-bricks (refuse stuffed plastic bottles) that Mauro is using as the foundation of his house and other works in the camp.


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From Villa O’Higgins we head south to cross two lakes with only a trail in between to arrive in Argentina … our 14th country! Next post to follow.




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